Leveling the playing field: Purposeful learning, purposeful teaching, and purposeful advising

— Jeanne M. Slattery and Joseph Croskey

Jeanne Slattery and Joseph Croskey

Jeanne Slattery and Joseph Croskey

Joseph was meeting with an advisee recently who was struggling with having to take General Education courses, but particularly frustrated about some assignments that she had to do for her classes. He shared the party line: it’s to help you learn how to learn. That might have been enough for some of us, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy her. Like many of our students whose parents did not attend college and who don’t really understand college, she seems to believe she is simply paying for the knowledge she needs to get a job/career, rather than anticipating that she will get something bigger.

An aside: Why is General Education important? What do we want our students to get from it?

One answer: We want our students to experience and practice a variety of ways of thinking that can help them approach novel problems in the future more successfully. We want to build the skills – critical thinking, writing, inquiry, teamwork, oral communication, etc. – that will help them be successful. We want to help them discover their passion, as many students do in their General Education courses.

After Joseph’s advisee left, he discovered an article by Berrett (2015) addressing this question from an assessment/course improvement perspective. As Mary Ann Winkelmes and others describe, one difficulty many of our students struggle with in college is that they don’t understand why they are doing what they are doing. For them, many of their assignments are only busywork without meaning.

We doubt that any of us would maintain that we are assigning busywork, but unless our students understand our purpose for an assignment, it may accomplish as little as busywork. In addition, many of our students don’t understand what they need to do to be successful at the assigned task.

These skills – understanding the underlying purpose and identifying the skills they need to bring to bear to perform a task well – are skills that most of our readers already have; however, our students often don’t have them. We, too, may not have had these skills when we started college.

Why should we understand an assignment’s purpose? Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Many assignments can be difficult, but understanding their purpose transforms them.

Jeanne used this short video with her inquiry seminar students, to illustrate the importance of having a why. The first time the man in the video sings, he performs competently. When he has a why, he has passion.

Winkelmes (Berrett, 2015) suggests that we can structure our assignments to level the playing field so that all of our students can be more successful in and out of the classroom. As she describes it, our students’ success depends on our ability to be transparent about the process and our goals. In particular, she suggests three places to be more transparent: (a) communicating your learning goals clearly; (b) creating tasks clearly connected to these goals; and (c) clearly describing ways to be more successful on this assignment.

Purpose: What do you want your students to learn? Do you tell them? Our assignments make sense to us, so we may fail to recognize that we need to educate our students about our goals.

Task: Assignments can be clear without setting up a situation that helps students meet learning goals. What, exactly, do you want students to learn? Do your assignments help your students meet these learning goals?

Criteria: Do you clearly communicate how you will evaluate your assignments? Are your descriptions specific (e.g., “In no more than three paragraphs, outline the main concerns about the worth of a college education – and responses to these. Cite using APA style.”) or more vague (e.g., “Answer the question well and cite sources.”). Do you talk about peripheral issues (e.g., font, spacing, format) or more central ones (e.g., make concrete observations of the cultural messages observed in advertisements)?

Compare these two assignments on these criteria:

Good: Complete a research paper on any issue that interests you in this course.  You should use APA Style and at least five resources. Your paper should be printed in 12 point Times New Roman with 1″ margins.

Why? What do you want students to get from this?

Better: This semester we have been talking about the role of critical thinking in effective interpersonal relationships. Demonstrate your understanding of these ideas in a five-page paper that evaluates one part of your life using our Critical Thinking Model and the readings from our course. Please include a References page clearly citing the articles you read and cited within your paper. Check out the rubric posted on D2L.

The assignment’s purpose is communicated more clearly and criteria appear to be integrally related to the assignment’s purpose. These criteria are clearly communicated to students.

We have both read Berrett’s (2015) article on several occasions and keep thinking that it is easier to talk about these issues than put them into practice. We keep reminding each other, though, that it is a journey. In five years we may be even clearer about our goals and how we will evaluate whether our students have met them. We will work on designing assignments that are even more effective in helping our students meet their goals.

It is a journey.


Berrett, D. (2015). The unwritten rules of college. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/The-Unwritten-Rules-of/233245/?key=Sj12J1BrYHBHZHFgOGxCZj5UYSRtZkt5MnBGY3wjblxcEw==

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books, Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

Joseph Croskey is a faculty member in the Student Success Department responsible for the University Advising Services Center in Becht Hall. He is also the Associate Director of the Honors Program. He currently serves as the Chair of Faculty Senate. He enjoys working with students in and out of the classroom as they develop and grow. He has recently been certified as an instructor for the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Program. He and his wife Kathy have a wonderful 16 yr old dog, three grown children, and three grandchildren.

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